Done is Better Than Perfect

Todd Richardson, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

I have always expected too much of my writing. In high school, I wrote poetry that I was certain conjured magic on the page, only to find sheepish typos and garish rhyme schemes when I later reread it. I was surprised, embarrassed. After uncovering my own fallibility, I lost the confidence to show my writing to anyone save my closest confidants. The discovery that one draft of writing could come out feeling so perfect only to later realize that the same piece needed more work indicated some clear flaw in myself. How could one written thing sound so good today and then so horrid tomorrow? Clearly the issue was me. I needed some work, some practice, to push harder. Instead of fun, writing became painful, an exercise reaching for the unattainable. The pressure I placed on myself forced me to improve and justified my expectations, but it also led to bad habits: procrastination, negative self-talk, loss of perspective.

               This pattern continued in college. I required spectacular feats of my five paragraph essays. Introductions had to begin with perfect first lines, hooks that lured my professor sentence by sentence towards my thesis. Conclusions had to culminate by offering some sort of profound philosophical truth that I was certain riveted my composition instructor’s perceptions of time and space as they read through their biweekly stacks of essays. My word choices had to amount to pithy remarks and razor-sharp observations. I earned A’s, a few smiley faces, check marks. These academic at-a-boys further entrenched my devotion to the cult of perfection, and when I didn’t receive the happy face or check mark it only reinforced my insufficiency. I chased a high of perfection but mostly experienced self-doubt and disappointment. Still, I was convinced that this quest for success was the process of writing. Perfection served as my pie-in-the sky.

               Then I went to grad school. Whereas before I had the time to obsess over my writing, the demands of an advanced degree knocked me on my heels. I floundered through stacks of academic articles and whole books due in a week. Professors assigned essays double the length I was used to with only half as much time to complete them. Perfection slipped from my grasp. I turned in first drafts that I started the night before. I spent more time understanding my readings than on their corresponding assignments. I abandoned my perfect first lines for functional sentences, let my conclusions fall flat, and didn’t turn in a single essay that used the word “pithy.” I received feedback of triple red question marks next to phrases like “So what?” and “I’m lost.” When I lamented to one of my professors that I felt my writing had sunk to sub-par levels since starting the program, she cocked an eyebrow.

               “How so?” she asked.

               “I don’t spend the time I used,” I told her. “I just finish it and turn it in.”

               “Done is better than perfect.” She handed back my paper, which was covered in red pen and included the phrase “Interesting Insight.” I got a B+.

               I wish I could tell you that I followed her advice from then on. It took me several more years and another master’s degree and a baby until her advice stuck in my skull, and only then I learned it because I didn’t have another choice. Diapers and midnight feedings superseded my desire for perfection. I swapped simple, short sentences in exchange for fifteen more minutes of REM. And finally, one the day, I received praise for it. Mentors wrote me about how clean my work was, celebrated the fact that I stopped using the word “pithy.” All of my work came back with criticism. I read it while bouncing my daughter on my lap, did the best I could to internalize the advice, and moved on. Letting go of perfection provided me a new opportunity I did not anticipate: the freedom to write for myself.

               Many writers learn this lesson well before I did, but many do not. I see some of them in the Writing Center and the library, pining over sentence structure and flow and tone. Some of them are young freshman. Some of them are veteran PhD students well on their way into their doctorate. Having spent a good portion of my younger life stuck in the cult of perfection, I understand its draw, and sometimes I still get sucked in. But, if you can, remember that perfection is bupkis. Reading drafts from your younger self should give you the ick, just a smidge, not because you are a bad writer, but because you are a better writer today than you were yesterday. In writing, there is always room to grow, and that growth requires giving ourselves the grace that the pursuit of perfection denies.

Today, entering the third year of the corona-go-round, we need to remember grace now more than ever. Writing is hard, school is hard, and the pandemic makes it harder. We face pressures at work and school to meet expectations set when the world was normal. Yet, this is not normal, not yet. Write from a place of grace, not perfection. Perfection has its place, but keep in mind this piece of advice as you plug away at your assignments—done is better than perfect.

Writing Emotionally, or What I Learned This Semester

Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

I’ve known I had to write this blog post since August 24th. My intention, when signing up for the last blog post of the semester, was to write about procrastination. I had a very specific reason for this: when I was writing my undergraduate thesis I told myself I would write over winter break, but never did. I wanted to write about my experience in case someone else might be feeling worried about writing (or procrastinating) over the break. But then my colleague wrote the first blog post of the semester about procrastination. Not wanting to feel like a copycat, I decided I would write about something else. My next idea, based on some readings and class discussion from our Writing Center Theory course, was to write about hospitality. I had planned to pose the question, “What did you learn this semester?” and try to prove that, even if you didn’t get the grades you wanted, there was always something to take away from your writing experiences. I started that blog post, but it felt flat and phony. My third idea was to write about writing processes and what to do when your process feels broken. I really vibed with this idea; I had the whole thing written out ready to be edited closer to the posting date. I decided, though, that it was personal in a non-universal way. I doubted anyone would want to read the ramblings of a random writing consultant worrying about their own writer’s block. Feeling lost, I tried to think of another idea that would tie all my thoughts together.

Our director at the University Writing Center, Bronwyn Williams, writes about emotions in chapter two of his book Literacy Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities (2017). At the end of the chapter, he writes, “Our moment-to-moment experience of our emotions is like the weather—unremarkable until something unexpected or memorable happens. Yet when the weather changes, we notice” (Williams 35). When I reflected on this idea, I realized that emotions are what tied all my ideas together. I may have noticed emotional changes throughout this semester, but I didn’t really stop to think about the impacts they were having on my writing practices. I can see now how my motivation and approach to writing aligned with my emotional state. At the beginning of the semester, I was so thrilled to be starting a master’s program that I was eagerly awaiting the first writing assignment. That excitement soon faded into dread when I realized how rusty my writing skills had become; writing became more difficult the more worried I felt. Around midterms, my romantic relationship of five years ended, and the emotional aftermath made my mind wander every time I sat down to write. A feeling of fear and insecurity about my writing set in the closer it got to finals. As the weeks clipped along, writing didn’t become easier, it only became more necessary. As I sit here and type this post, I feel another emotion: concern. I feel concerned that I won’t be taken seriously because I’m a woman writing a blog post about ~feelings~ and how they get in the way of my writing process. I’m comparing myself to my colleagues and the blog posts they’ve written this semester, and all I can think is, “do I measure up?” More than anything, I feel frustrated that I haven’t been as productive as I would’ve liked, and that my emotions have gotten so in the way over the past 15 weeks.

I’m going to ask myself the question I said I wasn’t going to ask: what did you learn this semester, Kylee? I learned that emotions are going to affect my writing; every emotional change I’ve experienced this semester has altered my writing process, even if only for a few hours, which in turn led me to procrastination and the feeling that I wasn’t learning anything from my writing exercises. I learned that some emotions will make it really easy to write and others will make it really hard. I learned that writing recreationally, though it means taking a step back from my academic writing, is a good way to process emotions. And I learned that sometimes it’s okay to take a break from writing altogether because, as my colleague and trusty writing buddy would say, “I’m just not in a good headspace for this.” Most importantly, I learned that it’s okay to be emotional about writing because writing is inherently emotional.

Works Cited

Williams, Bronwyn. Literacy Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities. Routledge Press, 2017.

Multilingualism: The Importance of Terminology

Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant

Earlier this semester, in our Writing Center Theory and Practice course, the writing consultants had a conversation about strategies for supporting multilingual writers. Surprisingly for a room full of English students, we began the discussion at a loss for words, but after a few minutes, it stumbled forward in tentative fits and starts as we attempted to talk our way around the topic.

Many of us expressed discomfort about discussing language background with writers, and the general consensus was that it felt inappropriate to ask writers about their first language. In hindsight, it was, perhaps, telling of an impulse to conflate difference with deficiency. If we ask writers about their first language, the implication seems to be that it’s obvious the writer is using a second language.

So what?

Clearly, it does matter. Throughout the discussion, we found that multilingual writers often begin sessions apologetically, dismissing any (usually imagined) language errors before we can. Simply put, they are primed to be on the back foot when they enter a consultation, and it can be difficult to move the conversation to a more productive focus.

Writing center lore suggests that the first few minutes of a session are critical—They create the tone, establish rapport, and allow the writer and consultant to set an agenda together for the remainder of the session. With multilingual writers, however, the time before the session begins is of equal importance because, in many ways, it dictates our expectations for those initial minutes.

To return to the classroom discussion for a moment, another interesting trend emerged. In writing center consultations, we often stress specificity of language to prevent misinterpretation, but it was striking how quickly our discussion on multilingualism slipped away from this practice. We spoke about “native English speakers” as a kind of monolithic group, and “everyone else” was discussed in contrast, with different interchangeable terms pulling us in several different directions.

Each of the labels we tossed around the classroom evoked a set of unstated presuppositions:

If a writer is an “ESL student,” it positions them in such a way that any English first-language speaker acts as an authority. It also invites the question of when or if they will ever “graduate” to a degree of ownership over the language. 

Similarly, if a writer is a “non-native English speaker,” it places them in a perpetually fixed status of being an outsider. Regardless of proficiency, there will always be a kind of assumed inauthenticity to how they use English.  

Finally, if a writer is an “English L2 speaker,” the convenient shorthand of the phrase often neglects how contextually specific language usage is. If someone’s primary social language is English, is it really an L2?

The varying degrees of nativism in each term we used reflected an unstated ideology of language ownership, despite the fact that the global population of English L2 speakers greatly outnumbers English L1 speakers. This lack of a language “center” should be a comfort to both multilingual writers and their consultants. We meet on equal footing linguistically, despite potentially having different strengths and relationships with the language.

I would also suggest that our use of careless labels creates a barrier to authentic language use—Writers may focus so much on emulating “native” English that they don’t develop a writing process that accommodates their own preferences and needs. Unless a writer’s first language is consciously framed as a linguistic resource to draw from, it may easily be viewed as an interference or a disadvantage.

Most importantly, the pointed discourse surrounding language and identity in general is often internalized by those who hear it. Whether multilingual writers have been explicitly corrected by instructors for vague grammatical infractions or have absorbed the quiet undercurrent of harmful language politics flowing through the broader American culture. Writing Centers have an opportunity to offer a safe haven from these trends.  

Anecdotally, in several years of tutoring, I have yet to encounter a multilingual writer that has any sort of notable language-centric disadvantage. In fact, more often than not, they bring a unique set of metalinguistic and metacognitive skills to the writing process. If we do not recognize that writing in a second language is always a constructive act, we are unlikely to help writers incorporate those transferrable skills into their writing process. Instead, we are more apt to foster the idea that a writer’s intentions are inhibited or obscured—rather than facilitated—by writing in a second language.

Ultimately, my point is this—regardless of our willingness to acknowledge it, the language used outside a consultation becomes the explanation for what happens in a consultation, which in turn becomes the justification for how we approach future consultations. Writing centers are ostensibly built on the premise of peer-readership, egalitarianism, and a kind of grassroots advocacy, but if our language choices don’t reflect those values, they will ultimately be—at best—toothless gestures, and—at worst—a reinforcement of the insecurities some multilingual writers may already feel.

Relearning to Write

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

My experience with writing prior to entering my undergraduate degree was much like any other contemporary American student’s: learn to write in a 3.5 paragraph format (better known in pedagogical circles as the 5 paragraph format), and it’ll carry me all the way through college. Turns out, college professors are not fans of the 3.5 paragraph format. Having such a hard shift from a highly organized, structured form of writing, to whatever it is that I use now was a hard lesson to learn.

My experience with the 3.5 paragraph format begins in eighth grade, when the Language Arts teacher’s favorite student took a day off high school (don’t ask me how) to visit her old stomping ground. With her she brought the Good News of 3.5 paragraph format, and from then on, every paper had to be written with one intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph. To be honest, finally having “instructions” to follow when writing was a huge boon for me. Now instead of waiting until the last minute to try to figure out how to write an essay, I could just wait until the last minute to actually write the essay.

I went to a “college-preparatory” high school, and that’s when 3.5 format really started to be drilled into me by the school’s curriculum. This is when I started to get frustrated with the format. As the length requirements got longer, five paragraphs were no longer enough to fill 10 pages worth of writing, at least not in any way that offered substance. I was also finding that 3.5 format didn’t always allow me to conform to the conventions of whatever genre I was trying to write in.

Once I got to college, after taking the required college composition courses, I decided to ditch 3.5 format entirely. In its place, I tried to model my writing after the kind of academic writing I was encountering in my course work. I wasn’t the most successful at it, as instead of trying to do what academics were doing in their writing, I simply stopped doing the things they weren’t, but it was as though suddenly a shackle had just been released, and suddenly I was able say the things I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say them. Learning how to do this on my own was a struggle, and my grades reflected that, but once I learned how to write what I wanted to write instead of what I thought my professors wanted to see, there was an immediate boost in my grades.

In my final semester of undergrad (just before the “Dark Times”), I took a course called “Teaching of Writing,” where I learned that 3.5 Paragraph format wasn’t created to teach students to write at the collegiate level, it was intended to game the standardized testing system. My high school wasn’t so much “college preparatory” it was “SAT preparatory.” When funding for public schools became (partly) tied to standardized test scores, the schools needed a way to ensure that students’ writing could trigger all of the things that the scoring algorithm looked for in writing, regardless of how well written the content of the paper actually was. Of course, to remain competitive and maintain their reputation as “superior” alternatives to public education, private schools also started teaching 3.5 format. 

So how do we relearn to write? That answer is a little bit different for everyone. There’s an axiom among pedagogical circles that to be good writers, we have to be good readers. While this isn’t necessarily an idea that I personally subscribe to (It leads to a chicken and egg scenario if you think about it long enough), I do think that a good place to start to learn how to write is to model your writing on the things you read. The larger variety of things that you read the better, because that gives you options when you write. One of the ways that I make writing interesting for myself is to play with genre. I might write the introduction of a paper for one of my courses as a narrative, or I might reconceptualize a research project as a scientific study. Part of the benefit of understanding how a variety of writing works is you can take it apart and Frankenstein it back together.

None of this is to say that 3.5 format isn’t useful. I still use 3.5 all the time for smaller papers in the 3-5 page range. But, again, five paragraphs are not enough to fill out a full-length paper at the college level. And when you have writers who have been taught to construct a paper, rather than communicate their ideas, of course they are going to begin to flounder when they enter higher education, because most high schoolers come to college with the idea that it is simply more school where they come to be taught, rather than explore ideas on their own. Realistically, there is very little that we can do to change the way that writing is being taught in primary and secondary educations, so relearning how to write is a frustrating, but crucial, and also personal part of that transition into higher education.

Collective Motivation as an Incentive for Achieving Writing Goals: Narratives from Our Graduate Student/Faculty Writing Group

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

‘Hanging in there’ is a common expression at our weekly writing group. It is an expression that resonates with both graduate students and faculty participants as they seek to navigate the plethora of writing demands as well as other academic and life anxieties. Mostly, the expression is not out of frustration; rather it is made to describe how this group of people are progressing along in their academic activities, specifically graduate-level writing, despite its attendant challenges and struggles. Hence, they are not only ‘hanging in there,’ but also consistently taking ‘baby steps’ toward the completion of their various projects. And the weekly writing group has thus become a safe environment for writers to connect with, encourage, and motivate each other along the way.

A brief overview: the weekly writing group, which is organized by the University Writing Center, invites graduate students and faculty at the University of Louisville to come together during a dedicate time to work on any writing project at their own pace. The primary goal of our writing group is to provide support, community, and accountability for participants working on research or scholarly writing. Hence, it is not surprising that participants are open to discussing writing struggles, offering strategies working for them and sharing writing resources beneficial to everyone. Below are perspectives anonymously shared by some of the writing group participants on the importance of the weekly writing group:

“I appreciate having a space in which I can be a part of a community of writers and also can be held accountable.”

“It gave me the structured time to write with a group of people and see their progress in their writing journey and also see my own progress.”

“The writing group was a supportive group of peers steadily working on their individual writing goals.”

From participants’ reports above, we see that the writing group not only provides an influential support to the writers, but it also facilitates a sense of belonging to community working toward similar goals. To these participants, the writing group becomes a literal representation of ‘hanging in there’ because the group promotes significant actions that encourage them to forge ahead despite the difficulties. These significant actions invariably become a means for collective motivation that incentivizes participants to accomplish their writing goals as much as possible. Some of the significant actions peculiar to our writing group include:

  • Respectfully listening to writing concerns, needs, and struggles.
  • Discussing both writing related and non-writing related concerns: From work-life balance to organizing literature review, to self-care, among others
  • Celebrating milestones and success stories: Be it completing the day’s writing goals, completion/defense of dissertation, submission of articles for publication or conference abstract
  • Sharing relevant writing (and non-writing) resources such as blogposts, productivity planner, and yes, movie recommendations
  • Setting a week-long, specific writing goal to keep everyone accountable

Research has shown that writing groups help writers to improve their writing, establish a good writing habit, and be more productive in and confident about their writing. In addition to these benefits, the participants at our weekly graduate students and faculty writing group continue to affirm how the group encourages them to hang in there and take consistent baby steps toward accomplishing their writing projects.

If you are a University of Louisville graduate student or faculty member and are interested in participating in our supportive writing community, please e-mail writing@louisville.edu for more information.

Traveling Through Education

By Ben Poe, Writing Consultant

Returning to school terrified me. When I walked into my first undergraduate course at a local community college, I was certain I would fail, that I would not be able to act smart enough, or learn how to use the language of academia. Coming back to college was a lot like visiting a new location: it was similar to traveling to a new place, where I did not know the language, culture, and customs of the people. How does someone learn to live in a place they have never been before? By learning from their fellow travelers and the citizens who already reside there.

Education is not an individual experience, which judging by the number of times the first person “I” is used in the second sentence of this essay, is the way I perceived the endeavor when first returning to school. American academics, and American culture more generally, values individual effort and self-reliance. However, individuality only exists in relation to its difference from community: there is no “I” that exists without relation to the “we.” Thus, traveling through education means learning from your fellow passengers: it entails learning from the students who are traversing the new landscape with you. The relationships I built with my peers during my undergraduate journey—and now during my graduate travels—were possibly more important than much of the “education” I received from my classes. Indeed, lectures were important, but the real learning happened during conversations with others: a traveler can only read so many tourist pamphlets before asking someone what they know about the area. By creating study groups and book clubs with my classmates, my fellow travelers and I created communities that shared knowledge and put ideas into practice. It is these interactions, when I can articulate my thoughts in dialogue with other people, where I learn the most. Talking with fellow students, creating a dialogue between associate travelers, allows ideas and knowledge to collide into new forms of perception.

When arriving in a new location, the citizens who already reside there are the most knowledgeable of the culture. Building relationships with professors, tutors, and academic staff like librarians, not only made my travels through college easier, but showed me the “secret” venues that characterize the local experience: actively participating in the academic culture, instead of passively taking the necessary courses and exams—which resemble the cheesy tourist attractions in the travel analogy I am using—gave me a broader experience of college and the citizens (literally) living in it. During my journey at the local community college, I started visiting my favorite instructor’s office every chance I could. My relationship with my professor taught me the value of building academic relationships with faculty because our meetings introduced me to unique opportunities and made me feel like I was part of the campus community. Visiting with a tutor or meeting an instructor during their office hours, even only one time, can reshape intellectual interests and motivate new curiosities. Therefore, getting to know the colleges inhabitants, learning from who they are and not only what they know, makes the traveling expenses worth their value because the relationships create supportive, critical, and creative communities that will benefit any student in their travels that follow.

We hope that you will visit the University Writing Center and take away a souvenir that will last a lifetime.

Writing as a Social Activity

By Tobias Lee, Writing Consultant

Recently, a writer came in and started off her appointment with me by saying that she thinks of herself as a good writer and generally hasn’t had any trouble. This was her first visit to the University Writing Center, and her reason for making the appointment was the promise of extra credit from her professor. Wonderful, I said. I was glad to hear that she had confidence as a writer and felt able to approach new writing situations with aplomb. Indeed, it’s far more common for writers to preface their session with harsh self-appraisals of their abilities, saying “I’ve never been a good writer” and claiming they’re terrible at grammar.

The comments from both types of writers point to the same belief about the UWC’s purpose: that we exist to help writers correct their writing, to get you on the “right” track. Such a purpose would be consistent with a deficit view of student writing, which unfortunately is all too common. Of course, we’re happy to work with writers whatever their sense of their ability, and we can certainly share our knowledge of grammatical conventions. But another way of thinking about the UWC is as a space that recognizes and celebrates the fact that writing is an inherently social activity.

A social activity? How so? I see that one eyebrow creeping upward.

“Hey what are you doing later, me and some friends are gonna get together and write.”

“I had a great time writing with you, let’s do it again sometime.”

“You going to Jen’s writing party later?”

Okay, not quite like that (although writing in a group is very much a thing–see our events page!). Sure, it may be that quiet time to oneself is slightly more conducive to the penning of epics. Proust wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in his bed, not at Starbucks. But when I say writing is an inherently social activity, I mean that in a deeper sense.

People working in composition, rhetoric, and communication often talk about audience. No, not the ones lobbing rotten tomatoes; I mean the people who are going to read your writing (and if reading this makes you wonder if there are any serviceably well-aged tomatoes in the back of your fridge, well, now you know why I chose academia and not stand-up comedy). Ede and Lunsford (1984) identify two popular ways of conceiving audience: audience addressed and audience invoked. Those who suggest it’s the former argue for the supreme importance of knowing your audience. You need to know as much as possible about who (okay fine, whom) you’re writing for so that you can tailor your message to suit. The latter camp, however, insist that audience is necessarily a fiction. It’s imagined by the writer, abstracted from assumptions. You can’t possibly “know your audience.” Are they a bunch of persnickety prescriptivists who still insist on using “whom”? Which translation of Proust do they prefer? Shoot, I’ll bet you don’t even know what they had for breakfast this morning. Ede and Lunsford, however, suggest that the reality is far more complex. Audience is both invoked and addressed! It’s who(m) you imagine you’re writing for and the actual persons who will read your work because, in fact, it’s everyone who has ever influenced you. All those voices in your head! The ones reading this now, the ones metaphorically looking over your shoulder as you write, urging you toward this or that grammatical choice. From birth we’re continually internalizing, revising, and producing language: an ongoing dialogue with our environment.

And they weren’t the only ones, Ede and Lunsford. Matter of fact, their work was part of a much larger transdisciplinary shift in thinking whereby knowledge (and knowledge of writing) has come to be understood as generated through interactions and thus as socially situated and always emergent (rather than, say, residing inert in dusty books). Sociocultural anthropologist James Wertsch (1991) wrote a heady (pun absolutely intended) philosophical work on the matter called Voices of the Mind. He draws on Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and others and using words like “intermental” and “mediational means” to demonstrate that, well, basically, “no man is an island,” as John Donne put it. We’re part of a society, you and me, and it’s not just the laws, the economics, or the social media that link us. It’s the ongoing knowledge production that results from our interactions, no matter the time or the medium. The suggestion popular in history and Hollywood that great works are the product of a genius toiling in isolation not only isn’t true (Proust was quite the socialite, but more to the point, he was heavily influenced by many other writers before him); it also makes writing a lot harder than it already is and actively prevents people from challenging themselves since they weren’t born into the Mensa society and can’t afford the rent on an ivory tower.

So, come write with us! We love to listen deeply, to engage with your ideas, to muse aloud with you, think things through, see how they’ll play out. We’ll join the chorus of voices in your head, not to add to the cacophony, but to help you coordinate them into a beautiful song.

Ede, L. & Lunsford, A. (1984). Audience addressed/audience invoked: The role of audience in composition theory and pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 35(2), pp. 155-171.

Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reader as a Tyrant: Co-operative Principles in Standardized Exam Writing

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

Almost every Writing Center blog post begins with a story. Here is mine. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner, two years ago, I took TOEFL exam again. Yes, again, for a second time. At that moment, I have completed my MA degree in English Literary Studies in Hong Kong, read books written by the greatest critics in the world, wrote paper essays rewarded with and “A” from professors. I thought all of these would qualify me to shine excellently in a TOEFL exam, but unfortunately, I failed again in the writing section—only 24 out of 30. When I took TOEFL for the first time, my writing was also 24. Nothing changed. Even after the academic training in English department, nothing improved.

What ensued were a consecutive of questions and suspicions: “Can I manage writing in English? Am I a qualified English user? Please tell me what goes wrong with my writing? Is it grammar? Syntax? I have already applied complicated sentences and tried to be as critical and insightful as Foucault and Derrida. Tell me how I can improve myself! I did it tremendously well in IELTS. Why does TOEFL not work for me? What on Earth does the exam want? Why can’t the examiners see my talents? I have read the rubrics on ETS website, but ‘well-organized’, ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, ‘variety of languages’ are like vague empty outlines. They do not make any practical sense to me. How I hope I can talk to the markers in the face and throw the words on them: ‘Tell ME what YOU want!’”

The impacts on confidence were devastating. The side-effects even followed me in my daily life that I became extremely meticulously careful when I wrote, be it the meeting minutes, the emails to colleagues, or anything that would be read by readers. As an English major graduate, I could not write satisfactory English. That is the biggest irony to me and even to my life. I started to question my English learning experience, the efforts I had invested, and even my intelligence.

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to retake TOEFL. If it failed, I believed I might not take the exam again throughout my life. To take the preparation seriously, I paid tuition fees and attended an online tutorial course.

Was it effective? Yes. I got 28 out of 30 in the writing section, even though I realized immediately after having stepped out of the exam center that my writing had been a bit off the topic.

Did I improve my English ability? No!

In fact, I am a much more capable English user than the exam tutors. It seemed that everything the tutor delivered in class was a reaffirmation of what I had known: For the Introduction, use a hook to attract readers’ attention, expand the background information, bring out the topic and demonstrate the thesis statement. In a body paragraph, employ a clear topic sentence, write one or two elaborative sentences to explain the topic sentence, leave the major space to talk about examples and if necessary, write a small conclusion. As for a conclusion, don’t include any information, paraphrase the arguments mentioned in body paragraphs as succinct as possible.

They all sound like clichés. However, it was until I received my score report did I realize that I did not follow such mechanical rules in my exam writing. I used to think I need to be the owner of the writing; it should reflect my talents and styles; even though it would be an exam writing piece, it should be personal and original. Now, at least in the standardized exam writing settings, I have relocated my concepts about writing in an exam setting, and effects from the changes in my attitudes are revealed in my score report. In fact, exam is no more than a game with explicit rules. Sometimes, you need to feel detached to write better, to think more about the function of each sentence, mechanically practice the rules, write down the connectives, and when the time is up, say farewell to the work forever.  Exam is a task. Just complete it. You don’t need to show your personal talents in an exam setting, since the examiners don’t care. It is not worthwhile.

What makes standardized exam writing different? My answer is—the reader, the sharp professional yet indifferent eyes behind the screen skimming the written works, looking for something they expect they will read, making decisions whether they feel good or bad based upon the training they have innated into their mind mechanisms, marking the writing pieces, and over. How much time will they spend on reading yours? One minute, two minutes. Perhaps more, but they definitely will not read your writing closely, to appreciate the merits hidden in the textures of your lines. Nowadays, ETS even applies e-rater Scoring Engine (an AI technology) to mark writings. Machine rating says what exams expect to read in the writing section—standardized writings, expected formats, explicit signs, no surprise. The exam systems need cooperative pets to respond effectively to every signal to show their capabilities so that they can get rewards.

Exam markers are powerful readers, but they are not and should not be the authority to judge your writing in general. Exams provide a context with a set of rules to play. Honestly, all writings with expected readers do have rules, and your academic writing settings make no exception. Think about how many pieces of assignments your instructors need to mark, what they expect to encounter, and how much time they will spend on your writing. When you have your answers to these questions, you can decide whether you are going to be more orthodox or more innovative. Also, don’t forget, the academic writing setting is comparatively flexible. You know who your reader is. Talk to your instructors and ask them for clearer guidelines.

 I agree standardized exam writing has an oppressive force to discourage innovation, but this force needs its settings to perform. Outside of the exam contexts, you still have plenty of room for freedom to show your talents and styles: Write in your blogs, leave reviews on IMDb, update your social media, draft a caption for your Instagram Story. You will encounter readers who do appreciate your compositions. Show your talents to them.

To conclude, almost every writing center blog post begins with a story. Therefore, I wrote mine.

Blooms of Agency: What a Middle-School Writer Learned from KPREP On-demand Writing

By Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

Several years ago, I had a peer in middle school who became frustrated with a number of recent school policy changes. One week, cafeteria lunches had to begin abiding by new nutrition regulations—burying many of her favorite and familiar dishes. That following week, dress code policies began to be enforced more thoroughly—indubitably ushering in discipline against female students much more directly than their male counterparts. Both changes felt like additional hurdles to my peer in her learning. At this time, she, along with many of our friends became frustrated with these and other changes in school rules that left them feeling unable to express any feeling other than that of submission. They were angry with an entity that had no face, an imagined enemy that could not be named or assigned to a single person.  It also happened to be not long after these experiences that yearly K-PREP testing was about to commence.

This test measures student performance against codified Kentucky academic standards in the major subject areas taught in public schools. Accompanying this test is the usual essay exam question that often champions the standard five paragraph essay that is ingrained into the hearts and minds of public education attendees. One of the hallmarks of the writing section is its plea for crafting an argumentative response to a neatly defined opinion scenario depending on the grade level taking the test. From the time we entered testable grades, we were conditioned to see how important the yearly exam was not only for ourselves but also for our school district. Each year teachers poured their enthusiasm into wishing us well on the test as they laid their trust in our ability to apply what we had learned through the year to those booklets that contained our penciled in answers.

It was on this exam that my peer decided to work out the anger and frustration of navigating middle school as a response to an essay question. Something in the prompt related to a school procedure and my peer leaned into their experience and drafted an argument to lambast the system that garnered the rule changes and heavy thumb this student felt was pressing on her emotions. In making her response, she wrote in a way that directly addressed the reader or grader of this examination and in some ways ignored the goal of the exam—which seeks to measure student writing against a state determined standard. My peer’s writing took on an entirely different form that burnt away the edges of the exam’s intractable parameters. In her best attempt to maintain an academic voice, she pointed her finger at the test grader and gave blame for all the problems that were interfering with her inability to find a voice.

Looking back, I wonder now if only I could hold the clock on that exam and have conversations with my peer about genre, audience, and instruction guidelines—subjects that didn’t matter when pegged with her focus of expressing her frustrations on her own terms. The grader of that exam essay likely glossed over the essay and checked each box when she tried to adhere to the guidelines or address the prompt, ultimately missing her fervor and intent. Perhaps the grader of that exam toted a distinction of incomplete or failing to meet the standard. But, how can one assess bringing awareness of nonnative, invasive plants in a proposed community when the dread of one’s home life looms over waiting until the exam is over and the school day has finished?

My peer in that moment—although failing to meet the On-demand writing standards of the exam—found her voice and did so in a way that forced her to reckon with ideas of audience, tone, and genre. She could have just submitted a myriad, itemized list of concerns or even a stream of consciousness rant that would jump from one thought to the next with hardly any connection. Instead, she knew that she had to make some choices. She kept to the model of the five-paragraph essay and organized her thoughts in a way that would leave no question in the reader’s mind about what issues were occurring and causing her contention. Whether her convictions were rooted in rebellious middle school angst, taking the pulse of the public-school education system, or a mixture of the two—her very real emotional impasse of setting a no.2 pencil to paper had reached its epiphany. In choosing to write about her frustrations and anxieties in a way to address a potential culprit to her issues, she found her agency. In finding her agency she was confronted with the task of taking those frustrations and annoyances and turning them into a portrayable plane for an imagined reader.

Though I would scarcely suggest to students to deviate from their assignment prompts in such a seemingly anarchistic fashion, we (as writing center consultants) do teach them to undertake the journey of funneling those ideas and feelings into a form that a reader can access and engage with. Sometimes students are hesitant to write about a subject in which they hold contentions or reservations about in terms of portraying opposing arguments. These reservations can reach a more abrupt stalemate when students cannot find their agency within the prompt. The challenge of interacting with these prompts is further abstracted by the specificity of state standard which assess student performance in a vacuum. Indeed, much more could be said about the just debate in propping standardized on-demand writing up as the supreme measurement of student performance when schools with higher levels of poverty uniformly score lower on these exams that measure a single notion of writing.

At times, writers face a similar dilemma of channeling their emotions and feelings into their writing to address their audience. We at the writing center are jubilant to work with students whether they are beginning to engage with finding agency or are already in tune with their agency as they develop and become more aware of themselves and how they communicate with others in meaningful ways.

Our LGBTQ+ Writing Group: Explained and Explored

Liz Soule, Assistant Director for the University Writing Center

The first time I was introduced to a writing group was in the spring of 2016. As a way to welcome more students to the writing center, one of my friends and co-workers proposed the “Creative Writing Jam.” This was a series of creative writing groups held at the writing center, in which writers would come in, and amongst a community of like-minded individuals, get to work drafting their latest piece.

I hung posters advertising the event on the walls of my residence hall. I remember looking at the posters and feeling a mixture of confusion, anxiety and curiosity at the sight of them. Who would want to write in a big group? Wouldn’t that be distracting? Or worse, what if my writing wasn’t like theirs — and they judged me for it? Due to my trepidation, I never attended the Creative Writing Jam.

Now, as the facilitator of the LGBTQ+ writing group, I often wonder if these same questions keep folks from attending our group. This blog post is written for all those who stare at our whiteboard and wonder. In what follows, I’ll explore what our LGBTQ+ writing group is, why we offer it, and offer a window into what a typical group meeting looks like. My hope is that this begins the process of answering some burning questions and alleviating anxieties, and maybe opens our doors to more writers across campus.

What is the LGBTQ+ writing group? Why do you offer it?

The LGBTQ+ writing group is a gathering of writers that meets monthly in the University Writing Center. This group welcomes writers that self-identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies to join together to write in a communal space. Any kind of writing is welcome in this group (professional, personal, creative or course-related). During group meetings, participants have the opportunity to get to know others in the community as they actively write alongside their peers.

The LGBTQ+ writing group, like all of the University Writing Center’s writing groups, exists to promote a culture of writing across campus. An additional reason why we offer the LGBTQ+ writing group is to foster a supportive community of queer writers and their allies. This means that the identities of LGBTQ+ writers are respected (and, when appropriate, celebrated) and their writing is welcomed. By carving out a space for LGBTQ+ writers, the University Writing Center makes it clear that our growth as writers matters, and that we belong.

I would argue that we are working to effectively serve that purpose, too. At a recent meeting, I asked the attendees of the group what their reasons for attending were. One writer said they were looking for a “judgment-free,” or supportive community of writers. Another writer, who often writes queer romances, said they sought a space where the content of their writing would be welcome. For others, it came down to basic math – likeminded queer people to befriend plus writing to share and enjoy. In other words, a supportive community that fosters a culture of writing.

What happens in a typical meeting?

In this next section, I’ll try to illustrate what a typical writing group meeting looks like. While my description might not be as dynamic as the real thing, I hope that it can help reduce any anxieties that come with the unknown.

At the start of each LGBTQ+ writing group, the University Writing Center door is wide open. Everyone signs in, grabs a snack, and finds a seat amidst the circle of tables. Once we’ve all settled in, we share our names, our personal pronouns and the kinds of writing we’re working on.

Then comes the fun part: we write! For the majority of our hour-long meeting, we all actively write. And there is really no wrong way to do this. Some of us complete homework, while others write creatively. Some even complete personal writing, like daily journaling. During this time, some of us chat, others listen to music, and most of us get seconds on snacks.

To wrap our meeting up, we talk about the kind of writing we’ve completed–and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Some writers like to share recent writing during this time, but no one is ever forced to do so. Those that do receive thoughtful, positive responses. Afterwards, we say our goodbyes and I close the doors of the University Writing Center for the night.

This sums up most of our LGBTQ+ writing group meetings. There are some variations to meetings, but they’re usually small and always optional. For example, next time we meet, I’ll be bringing some prompts for the creative writers in the room to respond to, if they so choose. Also, a couple of our writers are also thinking they might workshop as a pair.

Some final thoughts

If you’ve been on the fence about attending this–or any–writing group, I hope this guides you to our doors. In the event that you have more questions, please, feel free to e-mail us at writing@louisville.edu, and we will happily discuss our groups with you.

More importantly, I hope that you know you are always welcome in our space. I’ll be glad to have you in the LGBTQ+ writing group, and we are excited to have you in the University Writing Center.